WASHINGTON — Amid the clamor of President Trump’s continuing demands for his supporters to look out for fraud at polling places, it is easy to overlook the fact that in many polling places, someone already is keeping watch.
And in most of those cases, they are not fighting fraud so much as the urge to nod off.
“If you’re the type of person who likes to talk to people, do not apply for this job,” said Jane Whitley, the Democratic Party chair in Mecklenburg County, N.C., home to Charlotte. “You will be bored out of your mind.”
The job is poll monitor, also known as poll observer, poll watcher and poll challenger. It is not the self-appointed position of election-integrity enforcer that some expect militia members and political operatives to assume outside some polling places on Tuesday. Nor is it the job of workers inside the polling places who greet voters and check their eligibility before clearing them to enter the voting booth.
Rather, this is a task performed by ordinary citizens, often volunteers, whose job is to sit quietly in polling places, making sure that voting machines are in order, no one gets rowdy and balloting proceeds without political chicanery. By any name, it has long been an integral part of the nation’s election machinery, one meant to boost confidence in election results in an era when faith in those results is under assault.
It also may be the most thankless one. Whatever chicanery or voter suppression is part of American politics, there is not that much of it that goes on in plain sight as people vote, and the mere fact that a monitor is watching makes it all the more unlikely that any will occur.
“Just having a presence of some sort is a deterrent for probably 80 percent of the bad behavior that’s going to happen,” Josh Helton, an adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington in February.
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Mr. Helton, who claimed without evidence that fraud by Democrats was widespread, said the senatorial committee helped recruit 2,000 Republican poll watchers to monitor precincts in Philadelphia during the 2016 general election — including 97 precincts where the Republican candidate for president in 2012, Mitt Romney, did not net a single vote.
Their role got a moment of notoriety this spring, when the Republican National Committee pledged to deploy 50,000 poll watchers in presidential battleground states for the 2020 general election. They were part of what Justin Clark, the senior counsel to the committee, called “a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better funded program” to advance Republican interests there.
Republicans tend to talk more about the need for monitors, but precincts often are staffed with watchers from both parties. Many are lawyers, chosen and sometimes paid by state or local party officials or candidates for office. But not always: The requirements vary widely from state to state, and are not limited to party officials or party representatives.
There are academic observers — researchers gathering information for studies — and even foreign observers gauging the fairness of voting here. In some places, civic groups can select monitors. Far from being required to have legal experience, watchers in some states can be as young at 14.
The duties vary as well. Some states allow watchers to challenge the eligibility of voters to cast ballots; others, including Pennsylvania, give that right only to separate challengers named by candidates or parties. A handful of states limit the right to challenge a voter’s credentials to election officials.
Regardless, the rules frequently give monitors scant leeway to assert themselves. For starters, not anyone can do the job; applicants must be vetted and usually trained by their sponsors before election officials grant them access to polling places. Self-appointed poll watches cannot just walk in and surveil polling places.
Many states prevent monitors from talking to voters or otherwise interfering in balloting. North Carolina imposes criminal penalties for making a frivolous charge that a voter is ineligible. In many cases, a monitor’s first step after suspecting an irregularity is not to cry foul, but to call party lawyers or local election officials, so they can address the problem.
Tina Walls, a Las Vegas lawyer who was a Democratic Party poll monitor in 2012, said she planned to do it again on Election Day. “With all the threats we’ve heard about on social media, I’m concerned that people will feel intimidated about voting,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do to help that and make sure that all ballots are counted, that’s the most important thing to me.”
Ms. Walls said her 2012 stint ended without a single question about a voter’s eligibility. This year, she said, she is less worried about voter fraud than about the impartiality of novice poll workers replacing older ones deterred from serving because of the pandemic.
There can be motivations on both sides.
Almost daily for the past two weeks, Pauline Lee, a retired lawyer and Republican Party monitor in Las Vegas, has spent four hours behind a glass partition at the center that processes mail ballots for the Clark County Election Department, straining to watch workers verify absentee votes.
“I’m doing this because I smell something wrong,” she said, citing local reports of absentee ballots sent to inactive voters and piled in the lobbies of apartment houses. Her concerns were heightened, she said, after the state’s Democratic Legislature approved a law allowing outsiders to collect absentee ballots for delivery to election offices.
“I’m very concerned about election integrity,” she said. “To me it’s not a Republican issue; it’s a democracy issue. I think it’s going to speak volumes in the future about how our democracy is breaking down.”
Ms. Lee said her watchdog role had been hamstrung by hostility from officials at the processing center and a limited ability to see what workers are doing. Binoculars and picture-taking cellphones are barred by rules shielding the privacy of opened ballot envelopes, and some aspects of ballot verification took place out of sight, she claimed.
Even so, she said, she noticed that workers responding to machine breakdowns were “running ballots two or three times through the same machine,” adding “Would you be concerned? How would that work?”
Last week the Trump campaign and Nevada Republicans filed a lawsuit calling for a halt in processing mail ballots, saying restrictions like those Ms. Lee cited had made “meaningful observation” of the ballot-verifying process impossible. Election officials deny the charge; Democrats called the suit a thinly veiled effort to suppress votes in the state’s largest and most Democratic County.
That fits with assertions by some Democrats and voting rights advocates that the Republican stress on poll-watching this year is just one facet of a broader voter-suppression effort. That should not be true, said Justin Levitt, who oversaw voting laws in the Justice Department during the Obama administration.
“Done right, it’s not the sinister, suppressive or intimidating thing it’s been cast to be,” he said. “The vast majority of the time, voters don’t notice they’re there, and poll watchers get thoroughly bored in the first half hour.”
Which is perfectly OK. In polling places, as in firehouses, he added, you want it to be “the most boring job on the planet.”